For almost 48 hours a truce settled over Manitoba’s 113-year-long language wars and a settlement seemed in sight. Premier Howard Pawley called in newly elected Conservative Leader Gary Filmon last week to discuss the government’s newest proposal in the political struggle that has been the overriding concern of the year in the province. Then, after a subsequent fourhour Tory caucus session, Filmon emerged to declare that the government “had not gone far enough,” and the war of words erupted again.
Andy Anstett, the government’s House leader and the minister responsible for ferrying the proposal through the legislature, concluded that the Conservative agenda does not include a desire to settle the issue. The dispute, which will now likely continue for at least a month, began last May when the NDP government, faced with a Supreme Court challenge, promised it would entrench bilingualism and certain French language services in the constitution and translate 400 of the province’s more than 4,500 laws into French. But the government failed to communicate its reasons: stopping lawyer Roger Bilodeau’s court challenge, which, if successful, could invalidate all provincial laws, causing legal chaos in Manitoba. The result: public opposition and division. And lengthy public hearings and plebiscites across Manitoba this fall merely confirmed that most Manitobans believed constitutional entrenchment was costly and unnecessary. Belatedly acknowledging the prevail-
ing mood, the government softened its most contentious proposal: entrenching services. It has instead introduced a draft bill that would give approximately 50,000 francophones the right to receive government services in their language in 30 communities where they form eight per cent of the population or a minimum of 800 people. Still, the government has not backed down on plans to entrench bilingualism in the province’s constitution.
For his part, Anstett called the compromise a “reasonable, workmanlike and just solution to a 113-year-old problem” which most Manitobans could support. But the Tories continued to object. They argued that entrenching bilingualism goes far beyond the Manitoba Act of 1870, which sanctioned French in the courts and legislature. And even though the new proposal specifically excludes municipalities and school boards, Filmon says that Clause 23.1 could be interpreted to include them.
Filmon’s rejection surprised both the government and Leo Robert, the president of the Société Franco-Manitobaine. “I could not understand their position. In this new proposal entrenchment of services is not there,” he said. Bilodeau, for his part, has granted the government an extension of his original Dec. 31 deadline to Jan. 15 to resolve the matter. Until then, Manitobans may see the same kind of rancorous debate and filibuster that divided the province last summer.
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